Thursday, November 19, 2009

Experimenting around expertise

(photo by Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr, Creative Commons)

All the experimentation about crowdsourcing is, in my mind, really a discussion about how to organize around expertise.

Time was, an organization needed to have certain skills and knowledge in-house to get things done. So, for example, John D. Rockefeller built a foundation in 1913 and hired the people he thought had the expertise to guide his giving. Those folks, in turn, used the foundation's resources to support the work of other organizations where other experts could further the goals of public health access. Large institutional philanthropy has continued in this pattern since last century - hire expertise in organizations and fund expertise in organizations.

Now, with all kinds of blurring boundaries, communications practices and tools, and changing career paths we really can think differently about how to access the information we need when we need it. Sometimes, the "expertise needed" question is really a "rent or buy" question. Neither the funding organization nor the enterprise doing the work may need to have certain expertise on hand at all times.

A new initiative, launched yesterday at the Web 2.0 Expo (#w2e), is geared toward accessing expertise as needed to build technology solutions that policy makers need and communities value. This effort, ExpertLabs, has some impressive credentials behind it. Anil Dash (@anildash) was an early blog platform innovator. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, Omidyar Network, Sunlight Labs, The MacArthur Foundation, The Knight News Challenge and Craig Newmark are all noted as "friends" of the effort.

Here's how ExpertLabs describes its work:

"Expert Labs is a new independent initiative to help policy makers in our government take advantage of the expertise of their fellow citizens. How does it work? Simple:

  1. We ask policy makers what questions they need answered to make better decisions.
  2. We help the technology community create the tools that will get those answers.
  3. We prompt the scientific & research communities to provide the answers that will make our country run better.

Each community provides its own unique expertise. And the end result is a government that uses the web not just to talk to citizens, but to listen to them."

There are several characteristics to this effort that drew it to my attention, especially as we try to link experts in capital allocation with program experts as part of the "What Capital When?" conversation. I think these characteristics are important to consider in developing change strategies:

  1. It is cross-sector by design
  2. It is a network of different expertise, focused on problem solving.
  3. It is not a "collaboration" of different organizations, but a networked, problem-focused partnership
  4. Expertise is intended to stay where it is, but work together as needed
  5. Crowdsourcing principles are in place, so a variety of "expertise" can be accessed.
In December ExpertLabs and several partners will be promoting Sunlight Labs' "Great American Hackathon" - a two day, all out buildfest. Or in Sunlight's own words,
"...The goal is to solve as many open government problems as we can with as many hackathons across the country as possible. We've teamed up with Mozilla, Google, Redhat and Fedora, who will all be working with their developers to make things happen, and we've teamed up with Open Source for America and Code for America —there are opportunities for everyone to make a difference."
You needn't be a developer, you can help organize in your community, identify the community needs to which technology might be addressed, or just help publicize the event. If you're a funder, you might also just keep an eye on how these efforts work, what they accomplish, who gets involved, who gets left out, and what, if any, organizational or strategic analogs they inspire as you think about your area of expertise.

1 comment:

Lucy Bernholz said...

A friend just sent me this link

which includes this story of a foundation and crowdsourcing. Also an Open Organization example.

Better Agents of Change
Last May, the Maine Health Access Foundation posted letters of inquiry on Facebook. It wanted applicants to its Fund for the Future to get broad input from the field before they submitted their proposals. Program officer Len Bartel knew that input from the community would make the final proposals stronger.